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The Land of Canaan

The Spies of Canaan

Johann Heinrich Ferdinand Olivier (1785-1841). Kunstmuseum – Basel.

Moses had received new tablets with the Law and Testimony of Yahweh. He gave instructions to build the Ark and the sanctuary. When all was finished, Moses brought the Testimony and put it inside the Ark. He brought the Ark in its dwelling and put the screening curtain in place, screening the Ark of the Testimony as Yahweh had ordered. Moses set up the lamps, put the golden altar inside the Tent of Meeting, and he burnt fragrant incense. Then Yahweh took possession of the sanctuary.

Whenever the cloud rose from God’s dwelling, the Tent and Sanctuary that Moses had erected, the Israelites would resume their march. During the daytime Yahweh’s cloud stayed over the Dwelling and there was fire inside the cloud at night G38 .

Moses anointed Aaron and Aaron’s sons and consecrated them to be the priests of Israel. Aaron took up his function as high priest. Moses held a census of the Israelites by clans and families. He appointed census officials and the names of all the males of twenty years and over, fit to bear arms, were recorded. The Levites, members of the clan of Levi, were not counted as the others. The Levites were enrolled to take charge of the Dwelling. They would kill any unauthorised person coming near the Tent. The Levites were thus put at the disposal of the priest Aaron, to be at his service. Only after this a census also of the Levites was taken. After the census the leaders of the clans brought their offerings to Yahweh and thus they proved their allegiance.

The Israelites then set off away from Yahweh’s mountain, preceded by the Ark of the Covenant of Yahweh, searching for a place for them to halt.

In the desert of Paran, Moses sent out men from each tribe to reconnoitre the land of Canaan. God ordered to send men to explore Canaan, one leader from each tribe. Moses sent out Shamua, Shaphat, Caleb, Igal, Hoshea, Palti, Gadiel, Gaddi, Ammiel, Sethur, Nahbi and Geuel. Moses gave Hoshea son of Nun the name of Joshua. The men departed and spied on Canaan. When they reached the Valley of Eshcol, they cut off a branch bearing a single cluster of grapes. Two of them carried it on a pole between them, along with some pomegranates and figs. Then the spies returned to Moses after forty days and they showed to the Israelites the fruit of the land. When the men came back they reported that indeed Canaan was a land of milk and honey, but that it was also a land that devoured its inhabitants. They spoke of the strength of the cities, of the Amalekites who lived in the Negev, the Hittites, Jebusites and Amorites of the hills and of the Canaanites who lived along the coast and along the River Jordan. They said they saw powerful tribes there, and giants. Caleb wanted to attack the country immediately, but the other Jews were afraid of the power of the people of Canaan. The Israelites then cried out in dismay and they rebelled against Moses. Yahweh was angry again, but Moses interceded. Yahweh only struck the messengers that had enticed the people by disparaging the country. Of the men who had gone to reconnoitre the country, only Joshua son of Nun and Caleb, son of Jephunneh were left alive. The Israelites then travelled on G121 .

Ferdinand Olivier was born in Dessau of Germany and first also studied painting there. In 1802 he moved to nearby Berlin and learned to make woodcuts there. From 1804 to 1806 he studied with his brother Heinrich in Dresden, where he met Caspar David Friedrich. He lived in Paris with his brother from 1807 to 1810 and then went to Vienna, always accompanied by his brother. In Vienna they came to know the Nazarene painters and they became members of the Lukasbund of Vienna, even though they were Protestants and the Lukasbund largely a Catholic association of artists. Ferdinand and Heinrich Olivier became members of the Nazarenes in 1816 and his brother Heinrich that year even accompanied Schnorr von Carolsfeld, one of the very main Nazarenes, to Rome. Ferdinand Olivier however never went to Italy. In 1830 he returned to Germany; he now went to Munich and became Professor of Art History at its Academy.

Ferdinand Olivier was a landscape painter but he never stayed far from Old and New Testament themes and many of his pictures, though they have as their main theme a landscape often also contain scenes from the Bible. His painting ‘The Spies of Canaan’ is not a very complex picture. It is a painting that simply and clearly shows a scene from the Old Testament, from the Book of Numbers. Olivier painted two Israelites returning from Canaan and as the Bible told that it was Joshua and Caleb only that were the messengers that remained true to the order of Yahweh, we may suppose that Olivier for that reason painted only these two of the spies. Joshua later became the great general that would capture Canaan, so Olivier may well have painted him in the lead and given him a round red hat, which looks like a saintly halo. The two men wear a huge bunch of grapes on a pole between them. The painting is allegorical, because the grapes on the pole are out of proportions, even if also the Bible told about a single cluster and men wearing the grapes. The grapes however indicate the image of the crucified Jesus on the cross. Jesus was often called the ‘cluster of grapes from the Promised Land’ after the theme from Numbers and Jesus was also referred to as a figure threading the grapes placed under the winepress. The Prophet Isaiah wrote on the avenging God of Israel that threaded in the winepress of his wrath the nations that oppressed Israel. Thus, Jesus was associated with grapes and the winepress. Images of Jesus threading a winepress are not uncommon. Ferdinand Olivier’s ‘Spies of Canaan’ is a rarer example of a painting of the first association of Jesus with grapes and vineyards. Caleb, the man on the left, holds a cane that resembles of vine and the grapes still hold the golden-green leaves of the vine.

Olivier made this picture probably after 1839-1840, when he started anew to paint in oil. His colours are light, like many of the Nazarene painters, in a desire to imitate the early Renaissance hues. He used no harsh colours on the men but broken white, light pink and broken green and also in his landscape overall soft colours can be seen. Olivier placed the men high vis-à-vis the viewer so that they dominate the low landscape, which unfolds at their feet. Here lies Canaan with its rich plain, cities, river and hills, as told in the Bible. Olivier’s composition is simple, but he did paint Joshua larger than Caleb and thus introduced a feeling of distance and an upwards movement, indicating the advance of the men.

Ferdinand Olivier’s ‘Spies of Canaan’ is a simple illustration of a Bible scene. Yet also with this picture we can appreciate how well he mastered his art: landscape, figures, shadows in the dresses, clouds in the sky are finely painted so that the painting could be admired in one or other hall or collection of a person that loved the style of the Nazarenes and was pious enough to seek such paintings. As it was, the picture entered the collection of just such a person, Emilie Linder (1797-1867) of Basel, who acquired many paintings of the Nazarenes and left her collection to the Kunstmuseum of her town.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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